The west coast of Michigan is a magnificent stretch of sugar sand beaches and the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world. Years ago, as college students, we drove out to these beaches late at night with our friends. We drank macro brew under the stars, while listening to the waves crashing on the shore.
Michigan has over 70 breweries, and almost a third of them make their home close to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Michigan’s lakefront towns still welcome tourists from Chicago, and day-trippers from other parts of Michigan. They attract a steady stream of visitors to their beaches, state parks, bed-and-breakfasts and tiny vintage hotels. The local climate is friendly to fruit growers: 75 percent of the nation’s tart cherries, over 250 million pounds, are grown here annually; and those same hardwood cherry trees also produce a flourishing furniture industry.
Dutch Calvinists were among the first to settle in the area during the 1840s. Their cultural, religious and business influences remain firmly rooted. Until last year, Sunday sales of alcohol were banned to varying degrees in many communities. On the surface at least, it seems an unlikely place for the brewing industry to gain a strong foothold. But it has, and in an impressive way.
Michigan has over 70 breweries, and almost a third of them make their home close to the shores of Lake Michigan. When you consider that most of the population is concentrated on the opposite side of the state, it’s an amazing demographic.
Let’s begin our journey just north of the Indiana state line in a city called Benton Harbor. Owner and brewmaster Steve Berthel of The Livery is betting on an economic turnaround. This downtrodden community has more available lakefront land than anywhere else on Michigan’s west coast, so he just might be putting his chips on a winner.
In 2005 Steve renovated the Palace Livery, located in what’s known today as the arts district. The “9-barrel Berthel” brewhouse was cobbled together at a cost of only $60,000. The fermenters are English grundys from Cameron and Tettington.
Steve, a woodworker, cyclist and music lover, did much of the restoration work himself. The bottom level has an L-shaped wooden bar and stools made from secondhand wood. If you look closely at the posts in the taproom, you’ll see the cribbing marks courtesy of the horses in the original livery.
Part of The Livery’s charm is being the only brewpub in Michigan with both a stage and a mezzanine. Upstairs you can see more of Steve’s handiwork. It has a state-of-the-art sound system and regularly showcases national acts.
There are normally 12 house beers on tap, including a hand pull and two to four lagers. They’re not just the usual suspects. The lineup spans the spectrum from pale ales to high-gravity ones. Steve uses generous amounts of Continental malt because he believes that his customers deserve to taste the rich flavors those malts impart.
Are Benton Harbor’s worst days over? Only time will tell. But if they are, Steve Berthel’s vision of making The Livery a destination for both beer geeks and locals will be one reason for the turnaround.